Practice Management

Social determinants of health and the hospitalist


Innovations at Northwell Health

Northwell Health, a multihospital comprehensive health system serving the New York City metro area and Long Island, has shown innovative leadership in addressing social factors. The 23-hospital system initiated in early 2019 a 15-item Self-Reported Social Determinants Screening Tool, which is now used with hospitalized patients to connect them with the support they need to fully recover and avoid readmissions.

Dr. Johanna Martinez, hospitalist and GME Director of Diversity and Health Equity at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell, New York

Dr. Johanna Martinez

Northwell is also providing professional education on social determinants for different constituencies across its system, said Johanna Martinez, MD, MS, a hospitalist and GME Director of Diversity and Health Equity at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. A day-long training retreat was offered to GME faculty, and learning platforms have been developed for physicians, social workers, nurses, and others.

“One of the questions that comes up is that if you find social needs, what do you do about them?” Dr. Martinez explained. That’s more a difficult challenge, she said, so at Northwell, orthopedic surgeons are now asking patients questions like: “What’s going to happen when you go home? What are your social supports? Can you get to the physical therapist’s office?”

Another example of Northwell’s innovations is its Food as Health Program, initially piloted at Long Island Jewish Hospital in Valley Stream, N.Y. Hospitalized patients are asked two questions using a validated screening tool called the Hunger Vital Sign to identify their food insecurities.8 Those who answer yes are referred to a dietitian, and if they have a nutrition-related diagnosis, they enter the multidisciplinary wraparound program.

A key element is the food and health center, located on the hospital campus, where they can get food to take home and referrals to other services, with culturally tailored, disease-specific food education incorporated into the discharge plan. One of the partnering organizations is Island Harvest Food Bank, which helps about 1 in every 10 residents of Long Island with their food insecurity issues.

“When I talk to clinicians, most of us went into medicine to save lives and cure people. Yet the research shows that no matter who we are, we can’t do the best work that our patients need unless we consider their social determinants,” Dr. Martinez said. Ultimately, she noted, there is a need to change the culture of health care. “We have to create system change, reimbursement change, policy change.”

Dr. Omolara Uwemedimo, associate professor of pediatrics and occupational medicine at Northwell Health, New York

Dr. Omolara Uwemedimo

Omolara Uwemedimo, MD, MPH, associate professor of pediatrics and occupational medicine at Northwell and a former nocturnist, said the treatment of illness and health improvement don’t begin in the hospital, they begin in the community. Identifying where people are struggling and what communities they come from requires a broader view of the provider’s role. “Are patients who are readmitted to the hospital generally coming from certain demographics or from certain zip codes?” she asked. “Start there. How can we better connect with those communities?”


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